Understanding trauma

Understanding trauma – and the problem of compassion in these troubled times.
18th August 2021- Joint Parent / Teacher edition.

Trauma is a concept that we are both over-familiar with and under-informed about. On the one hand it can be ubiquitous and alarming in the context of a global pandemic. On the other its presence can be minimised and denied. Will our children – and our adult selves form part of a COVID-19 traumatised generation? And will that narrative lens be helpful or harmful?

It is easy to spot trauma -but harder to stay with it and acknowledge its tentacular presence. We have had a fortnight of traumatic news layering violence on top of the backdrop of concern about infection rates. From the hate-fuelled shootings in Plymouth, to the fall of Afghanistan to the hands of the Taliban, the invitations to live in fear and the vividness of fearfulness are all too present.

Trauma is something to be avoided as an experience – but also we can be avoidant about it as onlookers. Instead of meeting suffering where it stands, we skirt around it, teachers may feel tempted to leave it to the experts, the school counsellor, the Head of Year. In adult life, we go around offering drinks and distractions to adults whose lives have been touched by tragedy. Somehow the overwhelm of trauma is infectious. We know we can’t heal or fix it and so we veer away from the elephant in the room. This happens at close quarters in family life as well as in the classroom or staffroom. And yet, social support – or even just the perception of social support provides hope, resilience and the sense of increased capacity. SO how can we begin to engage with it?

There are also more low-key, but equally resonant aspects of trauma. By the time a child reaches 15 in the UK, around 50% can expect separation, divorce, family breakdown. And the way in which those family conflicts are navigated can have a crucial impact on the future life satisfaction of the children, and their ability to form and sustain healthy relationships. We can say that children who have borne witness to -or been on the receiving end of domestic violence in the home during lockdown are likely to be traumatised. We also know that for some individuals, an experience of bullying and exclusion in childhood can leave a traumatic legacy that affects their mental health throughout later life and infects relationships.

It is often said, that we are far more alert to post-traumatic stress, than we are to post-traumatic growth. In fact, the latter is the norm in 70% of cases.

So here’s the thing…How do we define and understand trauma better, so that we can show up as a caring presence, professionally, personally, and contribute to assisting growth through trauma, rather than distress?

I’m going to draw on some of the thinking of Gabor Mate, a Hungarian-Canadian doctor and expert on trauma, addiction, stress, and child development. He himself is the product of a traumatising childhood journey, as a Hungarian Jewish refugee fleeing the Nazis, he suffered lengthy separations from his mother as they navigated a treacherous path across Europe through to safety in Canada.

Mate defines trauma as “an overwhelming threat – that you don’t know how to deal with”. He explains that trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happened rather than what happened to you.

This definition is so interesting and compelling – it helpfully explains a coherent thread between everyday trauma and headline-grabbing events. It also shines a light onto why trauma does not necessarily heal itself with time or external repair.

Over my time as a governor at a primary school which became a lead school with recognised success in working with looked after children, I don’t know how many conversations were had around – for instance – children with adoption in their background. If they were ‘rescued’ in infancy, brought into a loving, and well-resourced adoptive family, surely it was ‘job done’?

For some time now, parents who adopt, have training in ‘trauma-informed’ approaches – to support them in understanding, reframing, and being more effective in relating to their adoptive child. And increasingly schools are training their teachers and becoming ‘trauma-informed’.

Trauma – the experience of an overwhelming threat that you don’t know how to deal with – prompts a defensive survival response – the disconnection from the self because the experience is too painful.

Disconnection & Dissociation.

This disconnection, or ‘dissociation’ leaves a powerful legacy because as with all avoidant behaviour, there is no mastery possible. When we no longer know how to deal with painful emotions, we withdraw -eg in relationships. This means you don’t have to deal with those emotions you don’t know what to do with.

This affects key brain circuitry: how we react and respond, how we self-regulate, how we manage stress, how we interact with each other, empathy. The growth and function of the mid-frontal cortex is inhibited. So the brain structure and function is different and is visibly different in traumatised vs non-traumatised brains.

One potential legacy we may have to look out for is the link between trauma and addiction. As I wrote earlier this summer, gambling-based addictions have been vastly on the increase in the secret online lives of teens. Traumatic experiences are overwhelming and isolating. This can lead to seeing the self as deficient.

Example: family break-down leading to a parent suddenly leaving the family home…unless the young person is assisted with a coherent, age-appropriate narrative of what’s going on, the child has limited options for processing the loss of their parent / key care-giver. Either the (previously protective) person who left is a bad person who abandons them – or they (the child themselves) is a bad, unlovable person. Option 2 is often the choice made, otherwise the child not only loses the actual presence of the parent, but also concept of the protective adult in their mind – which compounds the loss. The trauma comes from not having anyone to turn to / talk to, the inability to co-regulate and to moderate the narratives or meanings being made as a result of the event.

Developmentally, children have very limited resources to deal with difficult and painful feelings. And when family conflict is in play, when the parent or parents themselves are traumatised, the child may be overwhelmed and disconnect from themselves – go into a pattern of dissociation. This can add risk factors to decision making – eg people who dissociate don’t follow their gut feelings, and create situations of risk for themselves.
Children as they grow have 2 fundamental needs:

  1. Attachment – especially in infancy – but throughout life, we thrive best when there is attachment – first to parents, to peers, to life partners…etc
  2. Authenticity – connection to ourselves – a survival necessity.
    Trauma forces the suppression of gut feelings – damages authenticity and also interferes with attachment. Addictive behaviour comes into that deficit, that escape from the pain of the trauma. And how that is expressed in childhood and adolescence may be in toxic behaviours, systematic bullying or exclusions, campaigns of humiliation, provocations, explosive outbursts, dramas that provide an external distraction, damaging and destructive behaviour – eg theft, self harm, disordered eating and eating disorders. It is harder to feel if you are physically shut down in survival mode and simply do not have the calorific intake to feel. Check out Laura Hill’s TEDX talk ‘Eating Disorders from the Inside Out’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEysOExcwrE She clarifies the often missing piece of understanding about eating disorders which are not only about control…they are about stillness. A dysfunctional way of quieting the mind.

Some of the behaviour we will be seeing in the home and in school life will be as a result of overwhelm and dissociation, rather than wilful choice and culpability. Clearly later these ways of being can possibly mature into alcohol addiction and substance abuse as a way of existing at arms’ length from an unaddressed fear or internal pain.

Addictive and avoidant behaviour are not life choices. They are a normal response to trauma. When people are suffering they want to escape their suffering. This is normal and addiction, addictive, compulsive behaviours are part of a solution to the problem. And when trauma is unaddressed, it is a life-long pushing down.

The attachment background a child has (the extent to which the pattern of relationships where emotional needs are met is sustained enough to be internalized– that he or she feels safe, seen, and has access to soothing from care-givers) has a huge say in the mental health and resilience of an individual.

The second important factor to consider when it comes to our mental health is the experience of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Young Minds defines these as “highly stressful, and potentially traumatic events or situations that occur during childhood or adolescence. They can be a single event, or prolonged threats to, and breaches of, the young person’s safety, security, trust or bodily integrity”.

Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACEs
Young Minds defines these as “highly stressful, and potentially traumatic events or situations that occur during childhood or adolescence. They can be a single event, or prolonged threats to, and breaches of, the young person’s safety, security, trust or bodily integrity”.

Examples of ACEs include experiences of abuse or neglect, living with an addict / substance abuser, exposure to domestic violence, living with someone who has gone to prison, or living with someone with a serious mental illness, or losing a parent through divorce, death, or abandonment (Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust). We can add to this experiences of life threatening illness (affecting the child, a sibling, or a significant attachment figure), and changes of care-giver (eg through fostering) and suicide of a family member or peer at school. And just because these events may have happened a long time ago, doesn’t necessarily mean their traumatic impact has dimmed.

Trauma is a time traveller. When we are in trauma, we don’t respond to the present moment, we respond to the past. And these key events get revisited in the light of adolescence and passing child development milestones. It is not unusual for the death or separation from a parent to be revisited with visceral reawakened pain at weddings, births, other deaths…

SO an ACE in itself may or may not be traumatic. Crucial to this is the support a child or adolescent receives from an adult or a person who they are able to talk to in a compassionate and non-judgmental way, feel their feelings, and make meaning of their experiences.

ACEs are very common. Back in 2014 a UK study on ACEs indicated that 47% of people experience at least one ACE, and 9% of the population have 4+. The impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences is cumulative. 1 in 3 diagnosed mental health problems in adulthood relate directly to ACEs.

The rule of 3 applies- people who have had 3 or more ACEs are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress. So here’s another thing…a suicide within a school experience will chunk up the ACE factor in a whole year group – and in the child or teacher’s network…It takes attuned attention from the whole institution, great teamwork and the strategic approach of compassion from the adults around the children to assist with minimising the traumatic impact.

ACEs have a profound impact on child and adolescent development – so the ability to self-regulate, empathize, access executive functioning will lag behind the chronological age. Because ACEs and trauma involve prolonged or penetrating experiences of stress (chronic stress) there are physical impacts too – increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Further links between ACEs and violence or becoming the victim of violence speak to that point Mate made about dissociation.

N.B. ACEs can be signposts to potential vulnerability – they do NOT have to be destinies…

My own life story bears witness to this. Shortly after my own birth, my mother became profoundly ill and suffered from puerpal psychosis, meaning she was sectioned, and I was made a ward of the court. Mental illness has cast a shadow in my mother’s life, finally diagnosed as Bipolar after subsequent breakdowns.

Thanks to loving support during her absence, and successful reconnection with her once recovered, I have thankfully lived my life free of mental illness, and had a long, rewarding and loving relationship with her. 

Being able to disentangle her story from my story, and see points of integration (connectedness) and individuation (individuality, separateness, autonomy) has also helped. (The meanings we make of our experiences – do they drive us or do we drive them?)

Gabor Mate says “Underneath the traumatised persona is the healthy individual who never had the chance to express and engage authentically with their pain”. Compassion is the key and with compassion is being able to stay in relationship – even though the trauma-related behaviour may be difficult to understand, hard to even tolerate.
This is the beginning of being able to see the wound underneath. Shifting out of blame and judgment, into radical compassion. Visualisation for opening up to compassion when working with young people who are struggling and suffering:

Reproduced here as a excerpt of a talk by Tara Brach on radical compassion where she speaks of doing a ‘You turn’ when there is hurt, challenge, and difficulty. And I hope that this may be of use to parents who are struggling in their relationships with their children and teens – or with teachers who will continue to be seeing the behavioural repercussions of ACEs and trauma linked to the pandemic:

VISUALISATION – moving from judgment to compassion…

Imagine you are on a walk through the woods, and you see a dog in the distance.

Fascinated, you go towards it with curiosity and interest. You move in to pet it – but it lurches at you with fangs bared. Naturally you feel shocked, hurt, protective and you back away in revulsion and fear. The dog is a horrible dog.

THEN you see the dog is trapped. Its hind leg is caught tight in the painful grip of the teeth of an iron trap.

Your mind shifts instantly – from ‘you horrible animal’, to ‘you poor thing’. In and among the snarls, you recognise the higher whimpering notes of pain.

You’re still not going to go so close, but your heart is open again.

For ourselves, we need to see how we are living from our own woundedness, Brach contends, and then we can apply that to our relationships with others and move towards staying with and healing the hurt.


Now of course, it may be that where trauma is at stake, professional help with a therapist is needed. And indeed where abuse and serious relational damage has taken place, this needs care. Looking again at who we can be for each other if we let go of judgment (as parents and educators and in society) and self blame (especially in the parent zone) has great potential.

For sure, even if we look at the backstory of the alienated, disconnected and dangerous in society, the healing from extremism, the hole in the heart filled by incel thinking, the addict, the floundering, fearful, and fearsome…we know that prisons are stuffed to the brim with ACEs, and the answer is for a response that looks underneath the behaviour and understand the pain and suffering that propels it. 

But we need to be mindful that all relationships bring the capacity for growth and integration – especially the parent / child relationship – and the complementary impact the teacher / pupil relationship can bring. 

You may like to follow up on the link to Trauma Informed School or Trauma Informed Parenting to find out more:
Of course, this newsletter can only really be a jumping-off point. I hope that in this troubled time, it may have brought together some strands of thinking that may be productive and hopeful. If this piece resonates with you -either from a family perspective, or as a professional, consider getting in touch for a session to think through your experiences and how you can apply these concepts to your own context.

Let me know how this landed, what useful training or resources you have found to help you be more trauma-informed as a parent, as a teacher, as a school, as part of this troubled tribe that is humanity.

With love, gratitude, and hope – in spite of these troubled times,

P.S. Feel free to send on, share on social media, with your parenting tribe, with teachers at your school and recommend to subscribe.Aiming at making the post pandemic world a more compassionate place, family by family, school by school. 

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